Friday, March 09, 2012

love me gender, love me sweet: a review of short-documentary screenings on 2012 International Women's Day

A friend of mine who worked for CNN Turk in Washington, D.C. had told me that on one International Women's Day, she was sent to the Turkish Embassy in D.C. to report on the solidarity the Turkish women in the United States shared with one another on this special day. It turns out that this was a culinary solidarity, in which the women exchanged recipes whilst discussing the ways in which they could serve their husbands better. As tragicomic as it may be, it also made me realise how unaware I was of what sort of activities were taking place around me and around the world on this day. Yes, I had read in news, over the years, especially in Turkey, about the atrocities committed against women, even on this day, but that was unfortunately part of daily life in my home country; and in many other parts of the world. We'd also read about how people mistake this day with a 2nd chance to make up for the gifts or flowers they forgot to buy on the Valentine's Day. I would get a decent coverage how men approached the day but knew little about what kind of activities women around the world organised, other than marches, meetings, demonstrations.

So, this year I had the chance to see 4 short documentaries as part of a screening co-organised by Open City London Documentary Festival and Hub Westminster. The selection was titled: Gender, Sexuality and Documentary - International Women's Day Screenings, and it was held at Hub Westminster. A brief word about Hub Westminster and what kind of a place it is (the screenings were held there). As soon as we stepped into New Zealand House, we were surprised by the high-degree of security and the people's confusion as to why we were there and where we should go. Now, when you normally go to a cultural activity event, there is often only one or two simultaneous events taking place in the same location, at most, but you can normally find your way easily towards your desired destination. At Hub Westminster's 1st floor, there is a plethora of activities taking place at the same time in a setting that seems to have jumped out of a Michel Gondry film. The idea of Hub Westminster is to provide work space to whoever is interested, across its multiple halls. As we walked towards the screening room, I came across a friend working for an architecture/urban design company. After walking besides what looked like a greenhouse on which it said "this space is bookable", I walked past the "office space" (a long table with electric plug sockets) of a film company and seemed to recognise the faces that went past me. It felt as if I was in a dream, walking somewhere I didn't intend to or know about and random people I knew from different eras of my life were making cameos. Anyway, it was an interesting experience and I really grew fond of the space.

Hub Westminster is a curious place.

There were 4 films on the screening, and due to some technical issues, we started a little late, which only helped a few more people make it on time, so all the better. The first film was called Home for the Golden Gays, the trailer of which you can watch here. As a continuation to my dream-like sequence of introduction to the event, this film was made by a friend of the friend I just ran into on my way in. I had heard a lot about it: how the filmmakers went to the Philippines to shoot a documentary about someone who had to return to Denmark and this person had cold feet in the last moment, and they had 2 weeks (and the funding that was granted to them) to shoot something. It did not take them too long to find what they were looking for, in the form of an old gay man who has become a regular at the Golden Gays bar, a discreet location on a calm side street in the middle of busy Manila. More interestingly, as we heard from the producer who represented the film (and who is the friend of my friend), Golden Gays sits on a site which is an annex to the building it is attached to. This building is run by a prominent person in Manila, who has kept his own homosexuality discreet for long, long years; despite the fact that a flamboyant place like Golden Gays was next to where he lived. The filmmakers made a brilliant documentary by following the daily rituals of this old man, whose profession is to clean the streets and who joins his fellows in the colourful bar that could have set the setting for any bizarre Tarantino scene, after putting on his heavy make-up in the evenings. The editing of the film is superb with beautiful photography, compelling close-ups and a good, overall definition. Added to that is a good soundtrack and there you have it, a short documentary on the non-story of a few characters whose life stories could possibly make up volumes of literature. Obviously, the producers and the director used the material available to them in the best possible way they can, and the film could only become lengthier and ever more compelling when they find a story to attach to it.

 Golden Gays is at the top of my list of places to visit if I ever make it to Manila

Zan (Woman) was the second film in the series. Produced & Directed by Farinaz Nikbakht, it is available in its entirety on Youtube. It tells us about the liberation from their husbands, marriages and other forms of oppression of three different Iranian women by way of quick and short interviews. It was neither an eye-opener, nor a cinematic breakthrough in my perspective but in many ways, I felt that it was the most relevant of the 4 films we saw, with respect to theme of the day, if not, to the event as intended by its curators (I will say more about this later). Even though the film is not remarkable as a whole, its slightly experemintative and figurative scenes and the background music make for a different experience than many may have had gotten accustomed to in documentaries. I, personally, loved the music but found the interviews too short, and the their outcome too little to argue for what the filmmakers (I suspect, through the Youtube description, but it may be someone else who wrote it) may think the film is showing: "Contrary to common belief, these women are not victims but fighters".

The third film, Dyketactics took us back in time to deep into the 1970s. In my opinion, and I am not sure if this description exists, it was a lesbian orgy pyschedelia. The curator of the night argued that this was one of the first films which was made by a lesbian, entirely on lesbians without any other connotations to it than the free-spirit sexuality it depicted. You can see a short clip from the film here. It certainly stood out from the rest of the pack, but, at first, I was not even sure why it was included in the selection. As revolutionary as it may have been for the history of documentary-making (if not cinema as a whole), surely there should have been a strong motivation to show a film from 1974, and especially this one in the light of the event. It is then I realised that this event had little to do with women, but with gender and sexuality as a whole. Now, obviously, at that point I did not recall the name of the event, hence my surprise; however, more significantly, despite the obvious overlaps, these discourses deserve attention in their own respects and could easily have been subjects of series of screenings in their own rights. If the latter was the intention for this night, that is OK, but it surely has very little to do with women's day, which was the thought that kept lingering in my mind, and which I set aside when I decided to wait and see the final film.

Twinset, by Amy Rose, the trailer of which you can see here was a lovely film. It is revolved around the daily life of Alan/Jennifer, a person who could possibly be described as double-gendered who (and I missed this bit whilst watching the film) either fluctuates between the two or has already completed the transformation from once being Alan, now to being full-time Jennifer. Jennifer was born to a mother who expected twins, but she was the only one that came out; but one could easily argue - and that is where the title of the films seems to come to - that Jennifer already embodies a twin set. Jennifer's routines are depicted by the camera that follows her in the streets, to her sunday masses, and at her (or her mother's home) where she and the mom have often argumentative, yet very polite, and always dark-humoured and funny conversations. In so many ways, the film depicts the problems Jennifer may have encountered in her life, withough giving us much hint about her background and how she may have overcome them, but through an image that depicts her as a self-confident, peaceful and a generous person; all of which make up for an unusually sun-washed documentary, set in Scotland (hence the double-reference to unusual sun). This, and the first film were certainly the highlights of the evening for me, and we were very lucky to have the producer of the first one and the director of the last one to have a small discussion/conversation after the screenings.

  Twinset is a truly beautiful documentary about what seems to be a beautiful person.
It is rather easy and fair for me to say that I liked the films, in general and the curation, too. There was some variety in terms of geographies and stories depicted but there seemed to be a predominant theme that related to type of characters depicted in the films and that had to do with issue of gender. Some of the discussions after the film also related to this. What I did not have an easy time with was the fact that, although gender is one of the most important and challenging issues, which provides for some of the most outstanding independent and contemporary cinema works I have seen, it does not always and necessarily reflect the issues that women have had to endure, and which I thought the International Women's Day was all about, in terms of raising awareness.

In a way, this selection reaches out to a group of people who are already aware of certain issues relating to gender at an advanced stage, and the fact that there was hardly any exterme reaction to what was shown and discussed could prove this point. So, then, why was the night centred around this topic? That, I don't know, however I could not keep myself from wondering why there could not be more emphasis on films that dealt with the problems such as labour or sexual exploitation, domestic violence, segregation or exclusion that are faced on a day-to-day bases by women all around the world, even in the most advanced societies. I have to admit that I felt slightly misled by what I felt to be the disconnect of what the recurring theme of the screenings were and what I thought was the meaning of 8th of March.

Nonetheless, thanks a lot to Open City London Documentary Festival and Hub Westminster, I felt indulged in a useful activity and there are few occasions where I would say "no" to a free cinema event, especially when quality of the films are what some of these films had in them. On the other hand, there is a lot to be though about and done with respect to the people's comprehension and dealing with the identities, roles and all the underlying connotations of women, or any other gender, ethnicity, nationality, race, and any and all representations where applicable. Someone most special to me has had huge impact on raising awareness on these issues for me and even though she may not be near me at the moment, I am sure she knows who she is. This is probably why I can understand why still so few people try to face, challenge and embrace these sensitive paradigms I tried to refer to. Yet, we all need to contribute a lot more to this debate. Every day and all the time, there is only more to consider and I'd rather we start getting there sooner.

Monday, March 05, 2012

one cocktail too many - Part II: Tyneside

There were four songs that accompanied me during this trip: The first one was the most influential in igniting that idea to walk up North London to watch the sunrise, which I mentioned, as the initial step in what eventually ended up as this trip. It is Glósóli by Sigur Rós, and in fact the last (and the second time) I had watched them live was Alexandra Palace, the very place where I wanted to head up to watch the sunrise. Sigur Rós have been a long-running favourite band of mine, and it is little surprise they can have such dramatic effect on my psyche at times of self-conscious emotional flexibility/vulnerability. It was another favourite band's, Calexico's Roka and its warmer, Mexicana tunes that gave me the feeling that, I should rather keep going but not follow a long, cold walk but one that will take me to further places, not necessarily warm and deserty in this case, but one, during which I can transcend into a mental journey, too, which was easy to achieve while snoring my way into patched dreams while their music tingled my ears in the background. They were joined by a recent discovery, Mumford & Sons, whose The Cave and Thistle & Weeds completed the quattro. It was in this order that I repeatedly listened to them, most of which, in my sleep. Now, by providing the links, I don't expect the reader to transcend into what I may have been feeling on a cold, damp Newcastle morning where even the seagulls seemed to have abandoned, despite the fact that it was already nearing 10 AM. Neither should I expect you to mix yourselves some German wheat beer, port wine, Aztec (tequila, spices, cacao and something else) and some prohibition-era cocktails although I can assure you they make up for a good mix, if consumed over sufficient number of hours. What I can certainly assure you is not to start your next-day hangover with black coffee and that is what I precisely did whilst trying to blend into my Tyneside weekend excursion.

If there is one feature that an outsider like me would assume dominate the Newcastle area is water, and there seems to be plenty of it. River Tyne is wider than many other rivers I have encountered in the United Kingdom around which major urban agglomerations have been founded. Newcastle sits about 10-km (6 miles) inland from Tynemouth, where the River Tyne flows into the North Sea. As far as I can understand, and to my disappointment, it does not directly connect with the other major rivers or canals within England and thus is not necessarily part of the famous extensive network of waterways but the importance of the river in the history of the city is, unsurprisingly, significant. Quayside, as I mentioned in my previous entry, has bent the commercial hub of Tyneside. By Tyneside, we should understand the combination of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead cities that sit across from one another, on the northern and southern banks of the river, respectively. History says the name "Newcastle" is owed to the construction of a castle by Robert Curthose, eldest son of William the Conqueror built a castle here on return from a raid into Scotland. Clearly, if this was a new castle, built in the Norman times, there was a settlement here from long before. And those who may know about Hadrian's Wall may also understand the significance of this part of Britain, where the Romans who had once conquered here their northernmostly part of their empire wanted to build a defensive wall against the Caledonians, the Celtic Highlanders referred to by the Romans as such. Many people still mistake Hadrian's Wall as the marking point of the borders between today's England and Scotland but that is not true. There is still more to England further north of Hadrian's Wall, but I shall not go into that now. In fact, I will not even talk any further about Hadrian's Wall, because that was an itinerary that I always wanted to do and by the time I realised it was not going to be achievable on this very trip, I decided to bury that somewhere deep in my mind and focus on what I had available in front of me: number of bridges spanning the Tyne.

Many of the seven bridges were built between the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, in the aftermath and on the heritage of the city's rise through the Industrial Revolution. Coal mining remained as one of the leading industries of the city for many years. The city went to an inevitable decline in the early to mid-20the centuries, and especially following the Great Depression, specifically due to its high reliance on exports while manufacturing played a key role in the city's economy. I had little information about the specific history of Newcastle, but anyone with some knowledge about British history and geography can have a good idea of the fate the northern English cities have suffered after the end of the industrial revolution and through the inter-war period and in its immediate aftermath. As this trip gave me the chance to reflect on these, especially under an overcast sky and in the perceived lack of people around, I remember about the story of some coal miners who took art courses and made a major contribution to the history of British art in the inter-war period, which was made into a book and is now an imprssive play which Kara went to see recently. Now I want to see the play, too, but I also wonder whether his review of the play that he had originally shared with me a couple of months ago had sub-consciously affected me in my decision to head up to Newcastle.

By the time I started to get bored of one bridge after the other, trying to decide where I should cross the river (and why), I realised that a city that kept its medieval heritage rather well, started to appear to my left. It was the mixture of the water feature, the industrial heritage, and architectural heritage of even earlier times (or remakings of them) and the varied topography (with narrow streets through unexpected hills) of this city that I was getting introduced to suddenly made me feel very attached to it. It also helped me overcome the repeating question in my mind: "what the hell am I doing here, and what am I going to do for the whole day"? Now, I have always been a big fan of waterfront cities with hills. If you have nothing else to do, just spot a few ideal places whilst walking on the waterfront (which is often where you start your city tour) and find ways to get to that top of the hill you just marked. Make sure you follow a consistent direction but try to get lost in the unexpected diversions as much as possible. And finally, voila, you find yourself with the most spectacular view of the entire city and its river/sea/lake under your feet... that is only if the weather is not shit or you have super-human skills to see through the clouds. Yet on this day I was not going to complain about the weather; if anything, the cold fresh northerly breeze was helping me recover subtly and the weather was only going to get better for the most part of the day.

Many formerly predominantly industrial cities suffered crises through the 20th century. Many cities that relied on manufacturing lost out to cheaper competitors elsewhere in the country and then further in the international market through the latter stages of the 20th century, too. Many waterfront settlements fell into decay and lost their authenticity, too. I had little idea as to what kind of transformations Newcastle went through but a city that had become the centre of printing, coal mining, glass making, locomotive manufacturing, ship building over time should be able to rub off its decay even if it was something along the lines of " the 20th century progressed, trade on the Newcastle and Gateshead quaysides gradually declined, until by the eighties both sides of the river were looking rather derelict. Shipping company offices had closed along with offices of firms related to shipping. There were also derelict warehouses lining the riverbank". And it looks like what may have saved Newcastle was not only its football club that marketed the city internationally but also the proactive and immediate response to the city's parents to draw up masterplans to re-develop the Quayside. And as biased as I may be, I think it worked well. A similar story is read through the waterfront re-development of Gateshead, where the city re-created its image through architecture. As much as it may seem superficial, and out-of-place in any other city I have been to, something made me feel that Gateshead's attempts were rather honest, humble and fit well with what was happening on the other side.

Gateshead decided to remove the one on the left from its skyline and replaced it with the one on the right and I think that was a good idea.

It is the The Sage Gateshead I found myself visiting, following my simple rule of trying to head up to the top of the hill to get a better view. Had it not been for the impressive graffiti I have encountered on the small alleyway leading to the entrance of The Sage and had it not been for the early Saturday passers who with their warm northerly smiles and nods drew me towards their direction, I might have given The Sage a skip. But I had other urges, too. I needed to use the bathroom, and I desperately needed some coffee!... and boy was that last one a wrong decision that I would regret...

It was before midday Saturday but The Sage was filling up with a curious crowd of young and old people. Before too long, I had ordered my black coffee and taken one of the free tables, across from what looked like a pretty comprehensive music stage. And there came the presenter up and said "welcome to you all for this BBC Music Nation Concourse Performances" and suddenly 5 young girls (aged around 16-17?) turned up on the stage and started playing their music. It all felt brilliant, these young people playing melodic tunes, high-treble, low-bass sound with an extremely loud keyboard into my dark as hell coffee and the sun started showing its face through the clouds behind the large, funky windows of the building. But, by the time the band started their second song after the rather funny introduction "if you have heard us before, you may know this one" (and so much for their confidence, well done girls), I felt like I needed to move on. I had already taken too long a part in this beautiful local setting and the rest of the crowd consisting of decent families could possibly smell my alcohol-soaked clothes from miles away and their baby kids (and I often have nice eye contact with little kids) were frighteningly drawn into my hazel-blooded eyes. I just needed more fresh air.

Across the funky Millenium Bridge and I was back in the old town of Newcastle. By now I had read that a landmark monument I wanted to see for a long time was nearby and I could take a bus from central Newcastle, which I had not yet been to (up the hill again and behind the train station). I started to climb through the narrow streets, passed the Grey Street (named after Prime Minister Early Grey, but at that moment, as far as I was concerned, it could represent the general weather or what I felt like was the colour of my stomach), passed Amen Street and had a very brief look at the surviving walls of the actual castle and rushed myself behind the walls of a nearby cathedral. And there I had my first of the day!

A painful vomit... and an innocent-looking elderly gentleman whom I have apologised to for ruining his streets and from who I got a rather cold and confused "pardon". Boy, do I love the northern accent even if all I hear is "pardon".

Before too long I got myself to Eldon Square, where I would catch my bus. I walked through the main street, the shopping mall and could already start seeing the youth of this typical English town pouring in. I knew I was going to get back here and get myself exposed to all that hype but now I had one destination to go to...

...and thus I jumped on the municipal bus number 21 for my trip to go see Angel of the North (one more episode to go...)

Sunday, March 04, 2012

one cocktail too many - Part I: my own prohibition in Newcastle.

Part II is here:

This is where it all started. No, in fact, this is where everything ended, and re-started in a different shape. Everything new that made this story possible. Everything that happened due to events prior to it (or lack thereof). 

When I left the office around 5:30 PM on Friday, with the plans to head to Christien's magazine launch within the next half hour, I thought I'd give Can the usual LSE Friday evening calls to see if he wanted to grab a beer. After an unsuccessful attempt, had he not called me back and decided to come down for a drink, none of what I am about to explain would have happened. Neither would they, had we been not joined later by Pinar, Kara, and Oya; and decided to head back to another pub because Oya felt cold and spend enough time there for me to ditch my magazine launch plans, at the expense of disappointing Adam, Christien, and Olivia who I had earlier invited to the occasion.

Had Kara and I not had long, long, long, deep, and enjoyable conversations over some white port and red wine after a huge sausage meal at Herman ze German, I would not be writing any of this at all. And if we were not in London and a place like Gordon's Wine Bar had to close down its outer space on a fine late winter/early spring's evening, we would not even have though of moving on to Freud's for some cocktails. I am still a confrontational person but my patience skills have taught me how to deal with annoying offenders and this way I could avoid a fight with two guys who were being cocky, yet showed them I was not a pushover. Maybe that helped me and Kara stay for another couple of cocktails, in stead of heading back home wearily. And that brought us to polish the night at our local speakeasy whose creative cocktail menu and the setting we just fell in love with, which you can see in the picture.

Were I not cycling the whole night, and in fact, had I not re-started working at LSE Cities; might have I not forgotten to buy myself a new set of earplugs since I lost the others two days ago and borrowed Adam's amazing earphones which I forgot to return to him; then I would not have started taking a walk after getting back home, because the music felt good, I wanted to cool-off from all the night's movement and walking my bicycle home and the patchy sky was inviting me to watch a lonely sunset. At that moment, I thought of walking all the way up to Wood Green to catch the sunrise from Alexandra Palace. It did not take too long before I realised I'd get cold and bored pretty soon and that if I really want to go further north, it should be worthy of the trip. This is when I decided to head to King's Cross. I picked up my iPhone charger and my passports, knowing that if I took the next bus to King's Cross, I would have about an hour before the trains heading north of England started the day's service. Plenty of time to start a recovery from the hangover, decide on my itinerary and find something to eat...

It had been a while since I have done trips on my own. Obviously, Dani's presence, as well as my change in travel preferences over the years have been key reasons to enjoy my trips in the company of others; but circumstances have somewhat forced me to take matters into own hand, lately. I did a small cinema-oriented trip to Berlin (although I have friends there) two weeks ago, but this one came totally out of the blue and I enjoyed every minute of it. 

I know I wrote this before, but no harm in stating it again. When my father was taking me to Sirkeci Train Station before I took the early morning train to Thessaloniki to start my 30-day solo travel on the rail tracks across Europe at the age of 19, I had a cramp in my stomach and almost decided to ditch the trip altogether. I had second thoughts 7 days into the trip in my lonesome experience of Barcelona, and on my last day in Paris when it started raining down the sky and down my eyes for reasons that are difficult to comprehend, let alone state. But, that trip changed so many things in my life and if I had missed any day of it, it would not have been the same. Irrespective of the location or of their length, some trips are better off, not fiddled with. Yet, many will start with a funny feeling in the stomach until you actually hit the road and the sunflower-filled fields start passing through the tilted windows.

First train up northwards that fit my desired itinerary leaves London King's Cross Station at 06:15 on a Saturday morning. As bizarre as it may be, the return ticket to York was much more expensive than that to Newcastle, which is a farther distance than York is. I had heard some interesting things about Newcastle. While I was confirming my PIN-code at the ticket machine, I was not in a position to remember whether those "interesting" things were good things, thanks to the 6-digit alcohol volume level in my blood, but alas, I was to find out, and as a saying goes in Turkish (and in many other languages I am sure); it is not the one who reads more, but the one who travels more, learns more about life.

I disagree, at large, with those who claim iPhones limit mobility in the sense that it constrains you heavily into social activity and frequent email correspondence and limits your ability to adapt into the physical setting you are in. True it may be, in some senses, if it weren't for my iPhone, I would not have had the chance to check the train times and ticket prices without actually heading to King's Cross and, unfortunately, when you don't plan your itineraries well, when traveling in London, things can get so frustrating that you give up in the 1st minute. This time, I had enough time, and just about enough consciousness to stop by home, take my iPhone charger, 6 tablets of Alka Seltzer, fill up a bottle with filtered water and head to the station. 4 Alka Seltzer pills just about had enough in them to help me endure a 3.5 hours train journey on cramped East Coast route seats, following my somewhat uncanny selection of honeyed turkey and butter sandwich. I barely remember any stops we made along the way, I certainly missed the sunrise, and I am sure it was hidden behind clouds anyway, I have no recollection of the scenery (although I took this route to Edinburgh once before) and I could barely keep myself awake before reaching Newcastle to make sure I didn't end up where I wasn't supposed to, the end station of the route.

I stepped afoot outside the train and all I knew was that there was a river with a few bridges on it, which I saw, on my way into the Central Station, on the train. The path near the river was called Quayside, and thanks to my experiences in other British cities on riversides and water streams (Liverpool, Oxford, Cambridge, Belfast, Birmingham, not least London), Quayside should take me somewhere interesting. It also looked like streets encompassing Quayside were more dense and narrower and more crooked around Quayside and that should mean an urban centre, and I knew all this thanks to the tiny city maps outside the train station and the Google Maps.

So I started my Newcastle-upon-Tyne discovery, walking down a hill that curved past a Chinese restaurant, superimposed by a dominating large, blue bridge. A couple of young lads, probably on their night's after-hours tours at 10 AM, buzzed their friend's security-gated apartment. I turned around the corner and rolled down the hill to reach the waterfront, after this first and brief human encounter. I could see the early joggers and fishermen setting the scene in what I was about to set myself into... (more to follow)